Joanna Hamer | Staff Writer
Sylvia Earle, National Geographic explorer-in-residence, is often affectionately called “Her Deepness” because of her record-setting expeditions to the bottom of the ocean. At 10:45 a.m. Wednesday in the Amphitheater, Earle will speak to Chautauqua from the place she is most at home — the deep.
She will speak remotely from the Aquarius Reef Base, an underwater laboratory and research center near the Florida Keys operated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), of which Earle was chief scientist from 1990–1992.
“When I was a kid, it was less common — in fact unusual — for women to become scientists or engineers,” Earle said. “It was unheard of for a woman to be chief scientist on an oceanographic vessel, or for a woman to be the captain of a ship, or to be the captain of an airplane, for heaven’s sakes. Those things have changed.”
Earle has led more than 60 underwater expeditions and has authored almost 125 publications. Among those is her recent book, The World Is Blue, which has been called “the Silent Spring of our generation,” and four children’s books. She was Time magazine’s first “Hero for the Planet,” received a TED Prize, launched the Mission Blue project to create protected marine environments around the world, and holds the women’s record for deepest solo submersible dive.
She founded Deep Ocean Exploration and Research (DOER), a marine consulting company that aims to engineer creative solutions to underwater exploration problems. It is now run by her daughter Elizabeth. Earle has been exploring and advocating for the oceans for more than four decades and shows no signs of stopping.
This week’s expedition to Aquarius is particularly important, as it marks the 50-year celebration of submarine living.
“I was around when (Jacques) Cousteau launched his first experiments in living underwater in 1962,” Earle said.
Now she continues to push the boundaries of what is possible in undersea exploration.
Explorers can live in Aquarius for up to two weeks, using a process called saturation diving.
“You stay underwater long enough for your tissues to get saturated with the gases you’re breathing,” Earle said, so that the diver has more time to spend exploring and collecting samples at the bottom of the ocean.
That process is crucial for scientists who want to study the ocean and reef, for divers and astronauts who need to be trained to deal with abnormal pressure, and for educational outreach programs that use the live camera feed from Aquarius to learn more about the ocean and conservation. Today, Chautauqua will participate in one of those programs.
In 1970, Earle led the first all-female team of aquanauts — scientists who live underwater — to the Tektite Habitat near the U.S. Virgin Islands. This week, she and Mark Patterson will lead a mission to Aquarius to study sponges, corals and groupers, with a particular focus on communication and education.
Award-winning filmmaker and fellow submarine explorer DJ Roller will be onboard the Aquarius, filming the expedition in 3-D. Roller worked with film director James Cameron on the 2003 Titanic documentary “Ghosts of the Abyss.” He has developed a new, more streamlined underwater 3-D camera that can get closer than ever before to marine life.
“New communication technologies are causing people to have access to the most important thing necessary for our species to survive, and that is knowledge,” Earle said. “Ten-year-olds today have more information available to them than Galileo, than Einstein, than Darwin, than all of them put together. What we know now is the distillation of everything that’s gone before.”
Continuing to add to what is known about the ocean and trying to raise awareness of the issues that face the seas have been the focuses of Earle’s career.
“Never before could we know what we now know, and it’s critically important because our impact on the world is so dramatic,” she said. “It isn’t just our increase in numbers, it’s our power to harness technology that can change the nature of nature.”
Earle hopes that as humans come to recognize their impacts on the land and oceans, greater knowledge and scientific advances will help lessen their negative effects on the world.
“Now we know there are limits to what is possible to take out of forests, the deserts, the waters or the ocean generally, and also what we can put into the atmosphere, put into freshwater rivers, and streams and the ocean itself,” she said.
Earle has been in love with nature since a very early age and recalls splashing around in her backyard, wandering the woods and coming home covered in mud.
“I didn’t know what to call it, but I wanted to be a biologist. I wanted to know everything about everything and to know how it all connects,” she said. “It’s only now that we have the capacity to do some of the things that I wished I had a chance to do as a child, to connect the dots, to really see the world with ourselves in perspective.”
Earle’s children’s books tap into that energy and excitement, getting kids interested and involved in the ocean. The Aquarius project also focuses on early education about the ocean, providing lesson plans, a blog and streaming live webcams, including one attached to the helmet of a diver in the ocean.
Aquarius is the only functioning underwater habitat in the world, and this celebratory mission is in danger of being one of the last. Budget cuts threaten the continued research and education in Aquarius, as the government works to reduce its spending. The $5 million that go into the national underwater research programs each year, Earle said, should avoid those cuts.
“It’s a very foolish action to terminate these critically important kinds of projects that give us unique access to the sea,” Earle said. “This is an awesomely, critically important reason to spend our hard-won taxpayer money.”
With new technology, including unmanned submarines and cameras, some might question the continued need to send human explorers to the bottom of the ocean.
“We should send cameras, we should send instruments, we should use all the tools in the box. But we shouldn’t take humans out of the loop,” Earle said. “If we do, we’re denying ourselves the crucially important insight that only people can deliver by being there personally. … James Cameron’s recent expedition to the deepest part of the ocean was an example of why we need to go. A machine can’t explain why it wants to go, but Cameron can tell you.”
The unrelated connections, the unexpected surprises, the unknown correlations — Earle argues that no computer other than the one on our shoulders can bring us those necessary revelations.
American laws need to catch up with what we are learning about the ocean, Earle said. With knowledge emerging every day about the issues the ocean faces, along with an increasing awareness of how little is actually known about what happens in the seas, supporting exploration programs is critical.
“We’re so far behind the curve,” Earle said. “Less than 5 percent of the ocean has been seen, let alone explored. Yet we do know that the ocean is in trouble, and we also know that the ocean is the underpinning of climate and weather. It’s where most of life on Earth lives.”
What we need, said Earle, is passion, innovation and dedication — but above all, knowledge. As she writes in The World is Blue, when people know more about the ocean and understand that its fate and ours are the same, there will be a greater push to explore, understand and protect it.
“What makes us strong as a nation, strong as a species, is having passion that goes with creativity, that keeps pushing the edge of the unknown, pushing the edge of new technologies, new ways to communicate.”